The Original Nightmare

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Nightmare Alley, 1947, 110 mins, Blu-ray

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (although it feels better calling it Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley, as he owns the film, every scene he’s in) is like many films of its era, particularly those that are noir, an exercise in taut, efficient film-making. There is a lovely rhythm to it, the snappy dialogue that informs character and plot at the same time (without telegraphing anything, a neat trick), the brisk pacing, the way the scenes flow. No moment seems wasted. While the film is saddled with an unfortunate (likely studio-mandated) positive ending, it does everything up that last scene so well that its a forgivable cop-out; indeed, just stop the film before that very last scene and you’ve got a nigh-on perfect movie.  In comparison the 2021 version feels lazy, wasteful, padded, self-indulgent. It tells largely the same story but takes forty minutes longer, never earning it.

Sure, Del Toro’s film may be prettier, slicker, bigger, but it is so curiously badly staged compared to the original- I cannot fathom why, except to suspect that Del Toro became too seduced by noir’s visual qualities, losing himself in the image, the lighting, and failing to manage the storytelling, the narrative, becoming a slave of style over content. Sadly typical of so many films now.

Scenes like Stanton handing Pete the wrong, deadly drink by accident, and then his horror the next morning at what he’s done, is oddly confusing in the remake; is it supposed to be deliberate, if so why be so obtuse? It felt like shots were missing, it was so clumsily edited. Later, in the 1947 film, Molly’s appearance as the fake ghost out in the moonlit garden is spine-tingling, you can understand Ezra Grindle being absolutely convinced that its the dead returning to him- its bewitching and creepy, whereas in the remake the same scene is so lazily staged its almost to the level of perfunctory (Molly just walking up the path in the snow, whereas in the original there’s a sense of wonder- she’s walking between the trees, glimpsed for a moment then hidden, then caught in the moonlight, Grindle getting more enraptured at every glimpse).

nightmarealley47bThe most devastating difference between the two, and possibly the most alarming, is the quality of the cast and the acting. I think there is no performance in the 2021 film that is equal to the comparable performance in the 1947 film. Joan Blondell’s Zeena is more lively and motherly than the cardboard Toni Collette, Coleen Gray’s Molly is a far more enchantingly passionate innocent than Rooney Mara’s listless version. Helen Walker is absolutely convincing as Dr Lilith Ritter, an intellectual equal of Stanton Carlisle who outwits him with both smarts and charm, against whom Cate Blanchette suffers terribly in comparison, Blanchette all pose and style and no substance, her face literally becoming a mask.

I think similar things can be said regards all the cast: in the 1947 film, the actors have passion and conviction, in the 2021 film, they bluster and frown, largely lacking any real chemistry. Bradley Cooper invokes ‘Indiana Jones and the fun fair of Doom,’ more than Stanton Gate’s descent into Nightmare: in the 1947 film, Tyrone Power charms first, then horrifies as he becomes a heartless monster, before further descending into -literally- a physical monster when he is undone. His arc is the story of a guy who sees an opportunity but is eaten alive by it, whereas in the 2021 film, I’m not sure what Stanton’s arc is: but maybe its because Cooper can’t really convince as a bad guy, he can only do moody, as if that’s all his range. I’m surprised at this, he’s seemed pretty fine in most previous films I’ve seen him in but he seems out of his depth here, and it looks like Del Toro wasn’t helping.

The 1947 Nightmare Alley is a lean, brutally efficient tragedy of a man’s rise and subsequent fall, and a shining example of a time when films just told stories better. Its the one thing I’ve noticed in many of the noir b-movies I’ve watched this past year or two  their ability to be concise and effective in telling a narrative (and to be fair, Nightmare Alley is surprisingly ‘A’, its not a b-picture at all, its production values are obvious, clearly a sign of Tyrone Power’s clout).

Certainly, Nightmare Alley can seem dated at moments, like other films of its day maybe betrayed to some extent by the limitations of what censors would allow, but one can argue conversely that this is often one of their strengths; suggestion: we hear the geek eat a chicken, the sounds giving us a minds-eye picture more daunting than graphically seeing it as we do in the remake. There’s a lesson there which maybe current film-makers should heed.

How refreshing to see a film in which a man cannot be saved by the love of his woman (barring the films jarring coda). There is something genuinely quite haunting about this film as it gets under your skin; massively impressive for a film that is so obscure its arguable that it was buried by it studio, and one I hadn’t even heard of until the remake was announced. Well, at least some good came from that Del Toro film.

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One thought on “The Original Nightmare

  1. It’s been over 16 years since Masters of Cinema released this on DVD, and I think I’ve owned it most of that time, but (as you’d expect) never got round to it. My only debate now is whether to watch it before or after the Del Toro film.

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